-written by Elissa, a current graduate wife
It’s fall and academic life is in full swing. For the scholars, the season means new writing, tutorials, seminars, book reviews and job applications. For the partners, this season means a wide variety of things but specifically for now, new relationships. You may have thought casual dating was something you would never do again after committing to your scholarly sweetheart. You were wrong.
Life as a graduate spouse, especially around this time of year, can feel like a never-ending speed dating escapade, first impression after first impression. People are exchanging numbers, fretting over coming on too strong and awkwardly engaging in conversation as they try to meet friends in their new environments. Few are particularly comfortable at this stage in the semester.
If you recently left home or your last version of it, I feel for you. The ratio of strangers to familiar faces is daunting. By the time you settle into life’s new patterns, you may not even have the energy for the friend dating game. That was my experience when my husband and I left Vancouver, and landed in St Andrews, Scotland back in September of 2011.
The first few weeks stretched our little family and we became insular to cope. We spent nearly all our time together. We listened to Bon Iver on repeat for days, consuming an impressive amount of wine and comfort food, and binge-watching Arrested Development for the third time. Eventually Steve and I realized that as much as we adored each other’s company, we had to start seeing other people.
Now, you need to know this. I’m an extrovert and a social connector to the core but the move shook me up. In those early days, it was a great accomplishment if I managed to have a conversation – any conversation – with another breathing human, let alone a peer. Eventually, I was invited to an event designed to link women who were connected to St. Andrews’ Divinity school. My husband was studying Medieval History, so I was technically outside the fold. I felt a bit uneasy about it, but I knew it would be good for me and I chose to attend.
It was the ultimate speed dating experience. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. I wore a name tag and perched nervously on a cold plastic chair, nodding and trying to smile. It sounds uncomfortable because it was.
Finally, it was my turn.
“Hi. My name is Elissa. I’m from Vancouver, Canada.”
Each woman shared what pulled her to the Scottish seaside town. I remember listening to another person introduce herself and all at once her words cut through the static in my head and rang like church bells.
“Hi. I’m Andrea and I’m from Seattle.”
At last my thoughts were discernible- “Seattle? The other Vancouver?! Thank God!” We had common ground. I got butterflies in my stomach and hoped she was the One.
When the event’s formalities were over, I pounced with a pick-up line. Andrea and I discovered we shared a mutual fondness for yoga pants and happy hour nachos from a tequila bar in Ballard. We exchanged numbers and set up a date to do what west coast people do best: walk in dismal weather conditions while drinking a hot beverage. Thankfully, Andrea and I hit it off.
I steadily made more friends in the weeks that followed but, as expected, the honeymoon period ended. I realized how deeply I missed my close relationships at home. I longed to share history, to be known. Sometimes I felt like I was counting the days until I could visit Canada. Recovering from a displaced social life is painful and exhausting. It’s so hard to leave your comfort zone and go on dates with new people when all you want is to process the pain of isolation and loneliness with long-distance friends at home.
The beautiful thing is that feelings of isolation abound in graduate circles. Many of us were experiencing the same pain. It took time and vulnerability but eventually acquaintances became meaningful friends and we found solace in each other.
Time passed. My new friends and I endured the cold Scottish winter and the stresses of academic life side by side. When our spouses were knee-deep in work, we were graduate widows together. We enjoyed the long days of summer, the quirks of life in a tourist town. We shared knowing glances and inside jokes.
When I finally visited home in July, I treasured every minute with my long-time friends. Absence did indeed make my heart fonder for my girls at home. I also realized, though, that part of me was completely unknown to them and that part of me became lonely. I experienced the same longing to be understood, for someone to say, “I’ve been there. I get it.” I found myself missing my St Andrews community.
When we returned to Scotland, I got out my little black book and got in the game again. It felt surreal to be perceived as a veteran. Had it already been a year? What’s more surreal is that as I write this, I am playing the field for the fourth time in St Andrews.
Currently, I am discovering the tension in making friends as someone with an established community. I certainly want to make people feel welcome and help them get connected and yet a part of me almost doesn’t even want to meet them because if I enjoy their company, it means I’ve got one more friend to say goodbye to when I leave. Saying goodbye is rough. The other sad reality is that every minute I spend investing in a new friend is one minute away from girlfriends who will soon depart and before long, I’ll be the new person all over again. This damn dating cycle never ends.
I’ve found that being a veteran graduate wife puts me in a unique position to help new arrivals and to be honest, I feel a sense of responsibility to help them connect. I cannot and will not befriend them all but I do earnestly long for them to find their own community. I empathize and want to see them happy and understood.
I’m no relationship expert, but after doing this for so long, I think I have some tips worth sharing.
Get uncomfortable. You won’t meet people if you’re sitting at home with your partner. Go on, girl. Get out there.
Do what you love. Find a book club. Join a gym. Sign up for a class of some sort. Go for drinks with your new co-workers. Take your kids around town. Hang out at a community center or local church. You’ll have some common ground to build on.
Be the friend you seek. Get clear on what you value in a friend and be that person. Like-minded people flock together.
Make the first move. If you meet someone that you click with, don’t be afraid to ask for their number and plan a date. A phone number doesn’t obligate you to be best friends, so why not take the risk?
Harbour your expectations. Each person defines friendship differently and social norms vary. Trying to build bridges in unfamiliar territory is difficult and it could take some getting used to.
Be vulnerable. You may be surprised at the impact this will have on your relationships.
Explore Facebook. Hopefully there are some local public groups worth joining. You may meet others who are share your status as a graduate wife and are also looking for friends.
Try to make friends with locals and expats and everything in between. You’ll be happy you did. Variety keeps things spicy.
Go to The Graduate Wife Facebook page and share where you’re from. You may be spending time alone when you could be getting to know another reader in the same town. Go find yourself some new friends.
What has helped you make friends on your graduate journey? Would you add any tips?